FILMS

Home for Christmas

Family fables dominate the holiday season

Brian D. Johnson December 9 1991
FILMS

Home for Christmas

Family fables dominate the holiday season

Brian D. Johnson December 9 1991

Home for Christmas

Family fables dominate the holiday season

FILMS

Director Steven Spielberg has said that moviemaking is a “childlike” occupation which he “never grew out of.” And it is fitting that the movie touted as the holiday season’s most likely hit is Hook, Spielberg’s extravagant revision of the Peter Pan legend, starring Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman. A $79million galleon of a movie scheduled to sail into North American theatres on Dec. 11, Hook has everything that Hollywood currently holds dear: precocious children, regressive adults and unabashed nostalgia for old-fashioned family values. It is the flagship in a fleet of Christmas movies about children who overcome divorce (All I Want for Christmas), bereavement (My Girl), homelessness (Curly Sue) and sexism (Beauty and the Beast). Nostalgia for the nuclear family is everywhere, even lurking beneath the black-humored veneer of The Addams Family, the movie inspired by the 1960s TV series about the ghouls next door and The New Yorker cartoons that preceded it. In the cold, lonely, recessionary Nineties, Hollywood has turned the family hearth into a new Neverland, an oasis of lost innocence in a world racked by separation and uncertainty.

Even new movies for adults are saturated with a spirit of nostalgia and reconciliation. They are stories of grown-ups who grew up too quickly. Several are period films, attempts to rescue the past. They try to find the place

where America went wrong, where the social fabric unravelled and dreams came undone.

For the Boys, a flashback-riddled saga starring Bette Midler and James Caan as performers entertaining the troops, serves as an

antiwar elegy for lost innocence. In JFK, director Oliver Stone disinters the Sixties and suggests that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a part of a conspiracy to escalate the U.S. presence in Vietnam. Bugsy, starring Warren Beatty, examines how organized crime tried to corrupt Hollywood in the 1940s. And in the supremely sentimental The Prince of Tides, a Manhattan psychiatrist (Barbra Streisand) heals a shattered family by taking a tough southerner (Nick Nolte) through a blubbering recollection of childhood trauma. JFK, Bugsy and The Prince of Tides are all scheduled to open late this month.

Meanwhile, the major studios have already released half a dozen movies designed as holiday entertainment for the whole family. Hollywood now seems infatuated with the theme of family harmony. After the success of last year’s Home Alone—the third-top-grossing movie of

all time—studio executives are treating child actors as box-office gold. Said Tom Sherak, executive vice-president in charge of marketing for 20th Century-Fox: “What Home Alone has done is show that there is a broad audience out there, and you don’t have to be afraid of using young people—kids are not taboo.” Reeling from the effects of the recession, this year’s North American movie revenues are down an estimated 10 per cent so far from last year. And the big studios are making a clear effort to lure

baby-boom parents into the theatres with their children. Pollster Allan Gregg, president of Toronto’s Decima Research, notes that current films reflect a move towards cocooning. “Instead of looking for the boffo, steamy-sex,

thrill-me stuff,” he said, “you’re looking to find something a little more wholesome.” Barry London, president of the Motion Picture Group and Home Video Worldwide Distribution at Paramount Pictures, told Maclean ’s that family movies have become “an important mix in the studio’s product” and that serious themes “reflect the sophistication of children in today’s world.”

Hollywood’s precocious child stars are even getting their own pubescent love stories, toy romances that serve as models for disaffected adults. In My Girl, the bittersweet tale of a widowed funeral director and his daughter, 11year-old Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin gets his first screen kiss. And something hap-

pens to Culkin’s character that almost never happens to children in family movies: he dies.

Culkin is the reigning prince of child stars. He is expected to earn $5 million to headline the late-winter sequel to Home Alone. He also stayed up past his bedtime recently to host TV’s Saturday Night Live—evidence that his appeal extends beyond his generation. Said Sherak: “He has captured a big youth audience along with an adult audience—a child star hasn’t

done that in many years, if not decades.” Increasingly, children are being cast in lead roles, and not just in movies for children. In the current hit Little Man Tate, Jodie Foster made her directing debut with the story of a sevenyear-old child prodigy. And in the recent Paradise, the story of a couple estranged by their son’s death, two children exploring puppy love staked out as much screen time as Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. Jane Jenkins of the Casting Company, the Los Angeles-based agency that cast Home Alone, Hook and Curly Sue, says that “there is a real trend towards family movies,” and serious talent is required from their young stars. “You need real little actors,” she adds, “not just cute kids who mug.”

Children in movies now have to look cute and grapple with the meaning of love, death, divorce and God. But the attempt to reconcile serious issues with light entertainment can produce some highly synthetic results. The theme of healing the broken home becomes alarmingly literal in All I Want for Christmas, a tale of two matchmaking children who conspire to reunite their divorced parents.

A seven-year-old girl named Hallie (Thora

Birch) begs a department-store Santa (Leslie Nielsen) to get her parents back together for Christmas. Hallie’s older brother, played by an insufferably coy Ethan Randall, tries to make her wish come true by concocting an elaborate scheme to ensure that their estranged parents are stranded together on Christmas Eve.

In a spirit of juvenile mischief reminiscent of Home Alone, the children unleash mice to drive their mother (Harley Jane Kozak) from her house. They make fraudulent phone calls. And they lock her villainous suitor (Kevin Nealon) in an ice-cream truck. An obligatory romance between the brother and a teenage girl mirrors the parents’ predictable reconciliation.

Directed by Robert Lieberman, who has the dubious distinction of having made more than 800 TV commercials, All 1 Want for Christmas is witless, insipid and insidious. The idea of teaching children that they can weld their divorced parents back together with a little magic and manipulation seems reprehensible. Fortunately, the movie is not even credible enough to fool the kids.

Curly Sue is slightly more convincing, and funnier. But the movie, written and directed by Home Alone creator John Hughes, is no more enlightened. It is a decidedly postfeminist fable, about a woman who turns her back on a fast-track career to mother a homeless man and an orphan girl. Nine-year-old Curly Sue (Alisan Porter) and her guardian, Bill Games Belushi), live on the streets. They use petty scams to survive— such as pretending to be hit by a car, then wheedling a free dinner from the driver. After arriving in Chicago, Bill and Sue target a BMW driven by a brittle female lawyer named Grey, portrayed by Kelly Lynch in a dizzying departure from her role as a junkie’s wife in 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy.

Thinking that she has maimed a street person, Grey nervously makes Bill and Sue guests in her penthouse condo. The tough little urchin, who whiles away the day playing poker with the Hispanic maid, is a handful. But her impudent charm thaws the lawyer’s icy exterior. Grey’s maternal instincts displace her careerism. And, falling for the proudly indigent Bill, she rejects her snobbish boyfriend. In a flash of transparent formula, the problems of the homeless, the motherless and the childless are solved.

There seems to be a run on movies

about precocious tomboys—from Curly Sués ragamuffin heroine to the scene-stealing daredevil played by Thora Birch in Paradise. Continuing the trend is My Girl, starring 10-yearold newcomer Anna Chlumsky. She plays Vada, another motherless child, who lives with her father, a small-town mortician named Harry (Dan Aykroyd). Vada is a hypochondriac with imaginary ailments inspired by the fatal illnesses that keep her father in business. She also feels

responsible for her mother’s death, from complications following Vada’s birth.

My Girl offers parallel romances for parents and children. Shelly Qamie Lee Curtis), a new cosmetologist at Harry’s funeral parlor, puts color in the boss’s cheeks for the first time since his wife’s death. Vada is jealous. Meanwhile, she is infatuated with a creative-writing teacher (Griffin Dunne) who is three times her age.

But she develops a more practical romance with her shy friend Thomas J., portrayed by an understated Macaulay Culkin.

Culkin’s first movie since Home Alone, My Girl is bound to attract a legion of young fans. But they may be in for a shock. Culkin takes a backseat to Chlumsky, the movie’s real star.

Her performance is irresistible, and Aykroyd confirms that he has expanded his range from wacky comedy to solid character acting. But parents should prepare their children for the fact that My Girl is a far cry from Home Alone. After an hour of gentle comedy, a child’s death turns it into a triple-hanky sob story. The movie’s producers have filled their promotional material with endorsements from child psychologists. But, despite claims of sensitivity, My Girl is an exercise in mawkish sentiment, an exploitation picture for the whole family. It objectifies its adorable little heroine, even making fun of her first menstruation. Transparently manipulating emotions, it also trivializes death. The early-1970s setting, meanwhile, allows for a jukebox sound track and some gratuitous parodies of hippie culture.

The Addams Family offers a more fullfledged journey into nostalgia—for adults familiar with either the 1960s TV series or the

Charles Addams cartoons that inspired it. For children, the movie works as a cartoon-in-theflesh, the exquisitely pale flesh of the clan that loves everything spooky. The best thing about The Addams Family is the casting. As Morticia and Gomez, Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia make a lovely couple. Portraying a man claim-

ing to be long-lost Uncle Fester, Christopher Lloyd (the mad scientist from the Back to the Future movies) is so delightfully over-the-top that it looks like his eyeballs are about to explode. And with the help of special effects, magician Christopher Hart makes the detached hand called Thing as agile—and mobile—as a family dog.

But the novelty wears thin. The movie has a weak story, in which Uncle Fester serves as a dupe in a conspiracy to separate the Addams family from its fortune. The action includes a romance, an ethnic dance, a slapstick sword fight and some wholesome black humor involving children. However, it all amounts to no more than a makeshift collection of stunts, gimmicks and gags. Some of the gags are funny—but they can be counted on Thing’s fingers. A late Halloween treat giftwrapped for Christmas, The Addams Family does not live up to its packaging.

With so many mediocre movies competing for the family dollar, the field remains wide open for one or two heavyweight contenders. Beauty and the Beast, an instant classic of Disney animation, offers more excitement, magic and hilarity than any of its live-action competitors released so far. Full of appeal for both adults and children, it is bound to be a huge hit. Meanwhile, next week’s opening of Hook remains keenly anticipated. With big stars, a big budget and the world’s box-office champion (Spielberg) behind the camera, it is the designated blockbuster. To be considered a success, it will need to earn more than $200 million. With the price of enchantment having soared almost out of reach, Hollywood is looking for the lost art of family entertainment—in Neverland.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

ANNE GREGOR

CARTOONS WITH WIT AND PASSION

Hollywood offers two new cartoon features this holiday season—one from the Old World tradition of Walt Disney magic, and one from the action-adventure frontier ruled by producer Steven Spielberg. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is the more impressive. Rich with excitement, passion, humor and song, it has the sweep of a Broadway musical. The animation is superb. And its transcendent appeal allows children and adults to merge their imaginations in a world of sophisticated enchantment. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, co-produced by Spielberg, does not aspire to the same operatic level. Primarily aimed at children, it is a cartoon romp with the honky-tonk humor of a Looney Tunes adventure. But it is witty, well crafted—and clever enough to amuse adults.

Beauty and the Beast, meanwhile, is quite simply the best cartoon feature that Disney has produced. The animation ranks with such classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. But for the first time, Disney breaks the sexist mould of its fairy-tale heroines, abandoning a stereotype evident even in 1989’s The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast spells out its enlightenment in no uncertain terms. The movie’s teenage heroine, a beautiful bookworm named Belle, fights off sexual harassment from a blockheaded suitor named Gaston, who insists, “It's not right for a woman to read.”

Belle ends up being held captive in a castle by the Beast, a prince transformed into an ogre by a spell that only love can break. She makes friends with a delightful retinue of enchanted objects, from a flirtatious candelabra that flames with ardor, to a motherly English teapot with the voice and personality of Angela Lansbury. The movie’s lush sound track does not offer a pop hit on a par with Under the Sea in Mermaid. But the song lyrics are riddled with

inventive rhymes. A gem from Gaston: “I’ve got biceps to spare and every last inch of me is covered in hair.” Beauty and the Beast is funny, smart and, in the end, gloriously uplifting.

It is hard to compete with Disney magic. But Spielberg challenges Mickey Mouse on his own turf with Fievel Goes West, a sequel to An American Tail(1986). In the original hit movie, the Mousekewitz family immigrates to America to escape feline persecution in Europe. Now, a fat-cat promoter lures the mice from their New York City tenement to a frontier colony, actually a giant mousetrap. Fievel is much better than the original, which was crude, violent and witless. New voices include John Cleese as the villain Cat R. Waul and James Stewart as an old dog named Wylie Burp. Fievel may lack that old-time Disney religion. But for kids addicted to the secular thrills of Saturday morning cartoons, it is a treat.

B. D. J.